Lawmakers, make sure Texans are educated for jobs of future

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Apprenticeships can be effective ways for teens to pick up career skills.

2015 file photo

Texas’ 2019 legislative session was one of the most productive in years. That was due in part to lawmakers’ focus on public education: After years of watching our state fall further behind, the Legislature took meaningful action to improve lives by ensuring all students had access to a quality education.

That, and the tone of bipartisanship, offered a sharp contrast to the rancor seen in Washington. To quote Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, it was the “Super Bowl of legislative sessions.” Voters noticed, re-electing more incumbents than many had predicted.

Well, it’s Super Bowl time again.

Amid a pandemic and with traditional Capitol operations upended, there’s plenty of reason to question whether the Legislature has the appetite to do big things. But with so much on the line, Texans won’t settle for running out the clock. Texans want wins.

Legislators should start by picking up where they left off. With 2019’s House Bill 3, they fundamentally overhauled public education — but those reforms did not anticipate the disruption caused by the pandemic and also largely ended when students finished high school.

First, because students have had their education disrupted, Texas must use all available tools, including standardized tests, to measure student performance and help address how much learning has been lost.

Second, Texas must focus on the pandemic’s impact on Texans with fewer years of education. At the height of COVID-related unemployment in April, 18 percent of Americans with a high school diploma or less were unemployed. Among those with at least a bachelor’s degree, it was 8 percent.

Today, a college degree or credential is crucial to attaining a well-paying job. Automation, artificial intelligence and globalization have changed the nature of work and increased skills requirements. By 2036, 71 percent of all Texas jobs – not just the high-paying ones – will require at least some postsecondary experience, estimates show.

While earning a degree or credential is a must, the specific degree or credential a student pursues is as important. Employment and earnings vary widely based on the specific postsecondary program and by industry.

In 2021, to help the Texas economy rebound to its full potential, the state should focus on economic policies that will extend the “Texas Miracle” for future generations, tackling not just the immediate problems but also long-term challenges. This begins with comprehensive workforce reforms that align our educational systems to meet employers’ needs and ensure that all Texans can access good jobs.

What do comprehensive workforce reforms look like? First, Texas must develop the data infrastructure that allows students to know what wages are today and what jobs will be available tomorrow. Texas must also measure the impacts of job training programs: Do they graduate students with living-wage jobs or set them up for a life of poverty? And if it’s the latter, shouldn’t we rethink taxpayers’ investment?

Next, Texas must make sure that all state government agencies – and their diverse funding streams – are working together toward common goals based on clear, unified strategies. The Governor’s Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative has started this process, but there’s more to do to ensure that postsecondary education and workforce training programs are optimized for the benefit of all Texans.

If this sounds ambitious, it is. But until the state can actually measure which education and workforce programs actually connect Texans with good jobs, the state is failing to deliver value to students or taxpayers.

In times of budget difficulty, Texas should prioritize its limited resources on programs that are linked to good-paying jobs and should fight to make sure all Texans have access to the best education and career training opportunities.

Even in a pandemic, there’s work to be done. The Legislature should take these steps to ensure that Texans can recover and thrive well into the future.

Texans sent lawmakers to Austin to do great things; they expect no less.

Tom Luce, a longtime Texas civic leader, is founder and chairman of Texas 2036, which promotes data-based policies to prepare Texas for future growth.

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